India: The Golden Triangle

Map of major sites in Rajasthan India tour

So many forts! So many palaces! The area surrounding Delhi and Rajasthan is endlessly fascinating. Chris and I arrived by overnight train in Delhi from Varanasi on December 1, and quickly realized that a car-and-driver tour would be the best way to see all the sites around Rajasthan that we wanted to get to. Happily, the hotel I chose in the Paharganj area, Hindustan Backpacker Heaven, had a tour desk (India Someday), and within an hour we were booked, paid up, and ready to start.

Map of major sites in Rajasthan India tour

Delhi

We met our driver, Singh, and on our first day he drove us all around Delhi. Our first stop was the Jama Masjid (the Friday Mosque), India’s largest mosque- it holds 25,000. Built by the Muslim Mughal dynasty in 1644, it was and is sight to behold, sitting next to the Red Fort. Later in the day, we visited Mahatma Gandhi’s memorial site, Humayun’s tomb, the Lodi Gardens, and India Gate. For such a busy city, Delhi has a surprising amount of land still set aside for parks and memorials.

Agra

The next day, we set off for Agra, stopping in at Agra Fort first. Built by Emperor Akbar in 1565, it is a twin to the one in Delhi. His grandson, Shah Jahan, built the Taj Mahal, and his son Aurangzeb imprisoned his father for the last eight years of his life in the Agra Fort, only able to gaze across the river at the massive marble mausoleum of his beloved wife.

Inside Agra Fort

Early the next morning, we left our hotel to visit the Taj Mahal, watching the sun rise and light up the marble as the day brightened. It was an emotional moment for me, as I’ve wanted to see the Taj Mahal for many years now. It really felt like a “bucket list” item finally being achieved. Not just the marble building and the mosques, but the gardens and the water features inside the complex are amazing, and such a nice respite from the hustle and bustle of the city.

The Incomparable Taj Mahal

On our way out of Agra, we stopped at the third UNESCO site, Fatehpur Sikri. The Mughal dynasty kings were some amazing builders!

Jaipur

We spent the next two days in Jaipur. We visited the Hindu monkey temple, Gal Bagh. The monkeys there are very tame and quite friendly, and used to being hand-fed by tourists. I was only a little bit scared of getting rabies.

Deah at the Monkey Temple

Jaipur is famous for its Amber Fort, set high on a ridge, and we walked up the curving paths next to huge elephants carrying tourists, seated in the howdahs. Named for the Hindu goddess Amba (not the yellow color of the fort), the royal city is a blend of the cultures of the Muslim Rajput rulers and the Hindu population.

The morning elephant procession up to the Amber Fort

The next day we spent exploring the City Palace, which houses an excellent museum of textiles of the court, armaments, the two largest silver objects in the world (!), and a surprising array of photographs of the court from the 1860s, taken by the Maharajah himself.

Inside the City Palace

Pushkar

For just one night, we stopped in the small lake-town of Pushkar, which means “lotus flower”. There, one of the few temples dedicated to the Hindu god Brahma sits atop a hill. Brahma, angered by the deaths of his children, once threw a lotus flower at a demon, killing him. Where the lotus flower landed, this lake came into being.

Udaipur

Udaipur is sometimes called “the Venice of India”, because it is situated on three lakes, and you can take water taxis to different locations. However, while we were there, all the water taxis- as well as all the five star hotels and rental cars- were completely booked out, due to a massive, high-powered wedding taking place. While we were there, Hillary Clinton arrived, as did John Kerry, Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Priyanka Chopra, Nick Jonas, and more. We didn’t get to see the palace, but we also didn’t mind taking a little break and just wandering around the artists’ alleyways. I bought a silk skirt and was severely tempted by some of the jewelry there.

The fort at Udaipur

Ranakpur

I am happy that we arranged to have Singh drive us around, because we got to see some out-of-the-way locations like the huge Jain temple at Ranakpur. Built in 1492, it is truly a work of art. The intricate carving is just beautiful, and it was interesting to hear about the teachings of the Jains, and share a lunch with them as well (they don’t eat animal products or vegetables that grow in the ground, but the lunch was still very tasty!).

Jain Temple

Jodhpur

Yes, this is where the riding pants come from! It is also home to Mehranghar Fort, built in 1459- which Rudyard Kipling once described as “the work of angels and giants”. The fort sits on a massive ridge and overlooks the “Blue City”, where Brahmin families could paint their homes in shades of blue (it was thought to repel insects as well). Jodhpur is known for its spices, which I would love to buy, but I can’t have my backpack smelling like turmeric for the next year! We stayed in a beautiful old haveli (a heritage home that was once a nobleman’s mansion) just outside the fort walls.

The fort above the “Blue City”

Jaisalmer

Heading into the Thar desert, we came to Jaisalmer- not very far from the Pakistan border. Here the massive fort really looks like a sandcastle rising up out of the sand. When the sun hits the sandstone, it turns it a deep yellow color, earning this city the nickname “Golden City”. Unlike India’s other forts, this one is still a working fort, in that regular people still live within it, in addition to shops, temples, hotels, and cafes.

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Jaisalmer Castle

One of the best things to do in Jaisalmer is head out to the desert for a camel safari. We rode our camels out to huge sand dunes and watched the sun set. Then we had a delicious dinner, and watched some dancing set to music using castañas and a harmonium. We slept in a very fancy tent that night, and woke up at 2 am to go out and look at the Geminids Meteor shower. With no light pollution out in the desert, the brilliant stars and the Milky Way were clear and bright.

Bikaner

On the way to Bikaner, we stopped at a cow care center. In addition to treating cows with blindness, cancer, and other diseases, they also treat cows who need surgery due to car accidents. Because cows in India are considered sacred (living embodiments of the Earth Mother goddess), most are not fenced in (and Hindus do not eat beef). While this leads to a peaceful peripatetic life for the cow, it also leads to some pretty serious car accidents, piles of cow poop in every city (except Calcutta, which does not allow free-range cows), and cows eating all kinds of trash such as plastic and paper- which can be fatal for the cow.

The Cows of India

Mandawa

Leaving Bikaner, we first visited the Karni Mata rat temple. According to a Hindu legend, the god Karni Mata was promised that all his sons would be reincarnated as rats, and so they are revered at this temple.

Karni Mata Temple

In the town of Mandawa, we walked through the quiet backstreets, gazing at the old havelis in various states of disrepair. Some are being gutted and torn down, their fixtures sold to tourists and to other haveli owners, who are renovating their family mansions and turning them into guest houses.

Finally we arrived back in Delhi, and said goodbye to our wonderful driver Singh. Next we’ll head further north in India and explore there a bit.

Rajasthan tour costs:

Visa: ($100 for 2 month e-visa)

Transport to: $40 Overnight train to Delhi

Daily costs: approximately $120 per day for two people

India: Kolkata, Sunderban, and Varanasi

Twenty years ago, I taught sixth grade world geography using a textbook that had the most beautiful pictures at the beginning of each chapter. I still remember the full page photo of India, and how much I wanted to go there. It sure took a long time, but I finally made it to India!

Kolkata

From Chittagong, it was a short flight to Kolkata. Chris and I were pleasantly surprised by how green the city is, and a slower pace than I was expecting. Our first full day, we took a Heritage Walk to see the old colonial buildings, built by the British when Calcutta was the “second city of the Empire” in the 18th and 19th centuries. I highly suggest Calcutta Walks, for their in-depth historical look at these old buildings. 15,000 colonial buildings are still present in the city, if you know where to look for them and can squint a little and imagine them in their full grandeur in the era of the Raj. Seriously, I could write whole pages on the history of these marble and sandstone buildings, but I won’t, because I know not everyone finds all that as cool as I do.

We also spent a day walking along the Hooghly River: wandering through the flower market (a riot of color and smells), drinking tea out of clay cups for five rupees, walking across the Howrah Bridge, and taking the ferry back over. No visit to Kolkata would be complete without a stroll through the Victoria Memorial at sunset, made from the same marble as the Taj Mahal.

On our last day we discovered the quieter side of the city, at the Mother Teresa Charity Mission house and her tomb, then spending some time in the Park Street Cemetery- one of the largest and oldest Christian cemeteries- but without a single cross, angel, or psalm in it. We rounded the day out with the National Library, a beautiful building which will look stunning after its current renovation.

Sunderban National Park

From Kolkata, we booked a two-day trip down to Sunderban to see the world’s largest mangrove river delta, and hopefully a Bengal tiger. The eco-camp we went to had amazing fish curry thalis for dinner, lovely hosts, and a most relaxing day on the boat. We did not get to see the elusive tigers, although we were pleased to see an otter on land, a rare sighting- as well as various birds, a few crocodile, and some spotted deer.

Varanasi

Having difficulty with the India Rail system, we gave up and booked a flight to our next destination, Varanasi (of course ten minutes later we found a rail booking agency). After a flight of only 90 minutes, we were there. Varanasi is one of the oldest cities in the world, with continuous human settlement for over three thousand years. Thousands of Hindus bathe in the holy waters of the Ganges every day, washing away their sins. They consider it auspicious to die there and have their bodies cremated- it is said to send their soul to nirvana, thus breaking the cycle of reincarnation. Every day between 300-400 bodies are burned on the ghats along the river.

In Varanasi, we attended the nightly Ganga Aarti, a river-worshipping ceremony. It was quite a spectacle, both for the show and for the goings-on in the crowd. Hawkers, beggars, tea sellers, naked ascetics offering blessings; all kinds of activities going on as we sat, waiting for it to begin just after sunset.

The next morning we went on a sunrise boat tour, watching the Hindu pilgrims emerge from the alleyways of the city and descend the steps of the 88 ghats, bathe in the river and give their devotional pujas. Although I would imagine that it’s not the most sanitary thing in the world, it was interesting to watch a practice that has continued unbroken for not just centuries, but millennia.

And so now we are on an overnight train, heading for Delhi and the Golden Triangle area to see some palaces, tombs, and forts. Got suggestions for what we “must see” in the next few days? Leave a comment below.

Country costs:

E-visas: $103 each

Flight to Kolkata from Chittagong: $80 each

Daily costs: $120 for two people

Bangladesh

Bangladeshi children in colorful clothing standing

Bangladesh is crowded. It has 166 million people- the population of Russia- squeezed into a country the area of Florida. And 18 million of those people live in Dhaka, the capital city. Or, put another way, the city has 33,000 people per square kilometer.

A typical street scene full of traffic

Luckily, we arrived on a Friday, so traffic was a little lighter than on other days of the week- but still noisy, chaotic, and haphazard. The amount of honking in this country is unbelievable! Dhaka features over 600,000 bicycle rickshaws, plus tuk tuks, motorbikes, cars, and buses on its roads. And that’s not even mentioning the boats on all the waterways.

These guys can really maneuver around!

Realizing that there was no possible way we’d make it around town on our own, we booked a day tour to see the sights of Old Dhaka, and visited the Parliament Building (designed by American architect Louis Khan), the old Nizwa Palace of the kings, Lalbagh Fort (1678), a Hindu temple, a mosque, and an Armenian Church built in 1781. Bangladesh has a very interesting history, first as part of India, later colonized by the British, and later partitioned off as East Pakistan, from whom they gained independence in 1971.

Nizwa Palace

Although colorful and fun to photograph, Dhaka is not an easy city for tourists, especially women. I was stared at constantly and many (so many!) of the braver Bangladeshis asked for photos with me or with Chris. We decided to head out of town to quieter parts- and less pollution. Dhaka has a constant haze around it from all the pollution- we never saw blue skies the whole time we were there.

After staring at us for a good fifteen minutes, we finally realized they were dying for us to take their picture

Chatting online with Deshguri, a great local travel company, we managed to procure tickets on one of the “rocket steamer” boats, gifts from the British colonial period over a hundred years ago. We boarded the old wooden boat at 6 pm, and were led past hundreds of Bangladeshis camped out on the cargo deck, up to the second deck, which doubles as simple second class berths and “VIP” first class berths and dining room. Our twin room had a balcony leading out to the bow of the ship, where after dinner and in the morning, we could sit and watch the countryside of Bangladesh float by.

Chris, inside our cabin
Enjoying the slower pace of the countryside

At breakfast, we met a Norwegian on break from working with the Rohingya refugees, and he kindly invited us to join him on his day tour. We disembarked at the tiny village of Hularhat, and his guide drove us to Bagarhat. There we could visit several 15th century mosques built by the Moghuls, as well as a 400 year-old Hindu temple.

The Sixty Dome Mosque, which ironically has 77 domes

Our day tour ended in the city of Khulna, near Sunderband National Park- the largest mangrove forest in the world. Unfortunately, we already had return tickets for the next night’s boat, so we didn’t have time for a 2-day trip down into the park. We will visit the 10,000 sq km preserve from the India side next week (sorry Bangladesh, but you make booking tours practically impossible!). We took a bus east to Borisal, where our boat bound for Dhaka departed from. This one was a shinier, more modern boat, made up of single, double, and triple berths. We fell asleep and woke up in the capital city.

Early-morning boatmen ready for work. They make about ten cents ferrying a person across the river in Dhaka

From Dhaka, we took a train down the eastern coastline of Bangladesh to Chittagong. Once away from the crowded and noisy capital city, the green rice fields and watery shrimp farms alternated in the countryside, punctuated here and there by a colorful vegetable market at a crossroads. And, unfortunately, trash. Like Nepal, Bangladesh has a serious trash problem, although they are instituting steps such as banning plastic bags at retail and grocery stores. The manufacture and sale of jute cloth products is a thriving business for Bangladesh. But even on the boat and the train, trash was disposed of by tossing it out the window- by the cabin stewards themselves.

Our train left exactly on time

In Chittagong we had one of those days that makes me want to give up on travel altogether (just temporarily though really!) so we decided to not take a bus another four hours further south to Cox’s Bazaar (after reading reviews featuring statements like “most rubbish-strewn beach I’ve ever visited” and “no bathing suits or shorts allowed” and “if you (a foreign tourist) go, the main attraction at the beach that day will be you”). Although it is supposed to be the longest sand-beach in the world, we decided to skip it. Instead we stayed home, and the next day we visited the Zia War Memorial. While giving almost no information about the War of Liberation from Pakistan, it does feature dozens of photographs and artifacts of President Ziaur Rahman, including the soap he was using the night he was assassinated in Chittagong.

Taking an “admin day” to do laundry and write my blog
President of Bangladesh, 1977-1981

And that was basically our time in Bangladesh. All in all, I found it a difficult country to maneuver around in, but still am glad we came. While we were here we also applied for and got our sixty day visa to India, so we head there next, and I’m definitely looking forward to that.

Country Costs:

Flight to (from Bhutan): $235 each

Visa: $50 each

Price per day: Around $110 a day for two people for eight days

 

Bhutan

Visiting Bhutan is expensive. Pretty much the only way to get there is a $250 per person/per night government-mandated tour. So we found the shortest tour we could find and paid up.

Ready for Dragon Air!

Flying from Nepal on Druk Air (Druk means “dragon”), we got an incredible view of Mt Everest along the way. We landed in Paro- only two airlines are allowed to fly into this tiny valley surrounded by mountains- and were met at the airport by our guide and driver, who would be with us for the trip. We got to sightseeing- first at Paro’s Rinpung Dzong (fortress), where our guide explained several of the paintings in the outer courtyard, such as the Four Friends, the Four Guardian Kings, and the Wheel of Life. Unfortunately, you’re not allowed to take pictures inside any of the temples (unlike Thailand, Myanmar, and some temples in Tibet).

Inside Rinpung Fortress

Later in the day we drove from Paro to the capital city of Thimphu. Bhutan has a population of 700,000, of which almost half live in these two cities. There we saw the National Memorial Chorten and the Tashichho Temple, where both the king and the political assembly do their work. It was originally built in 1216.

Tashichho Temple

The current ruling family of Bhutan is responsible for creating a series of indicators that measure Gross National Happiness- not only measuring economic growth, but also focusing on cultural heritage, sustainable environment, and good governance. Bhutan has universal health care and free education. Which they pay for with hydroelectric power, and tourism.

The current king and queen of Bhutan

Bhutan is still very traditional. Anyone working for the government must wear the national dress (an ankle length kera dress for the women, with a jacket with turned back sleeves and a contrasting collar, and a gho for the men, which looks a bit like a comfortable bathrobe belted at the waist, with knee-high black socks). So, all tour guides, airport workers, hotel staff, and restaurant workers wore those. Bhutan did not open up to tv and internet until 1997. Students in Bhutan often attend university in India, and some look to Kuwait and the Middle East for jobs, as unemployment is high in Bhutan.

On day two we drove to Punakhah, where the winter palace is (it’s in a much warmer valley). We passed the 108 Chortens Memorial along the way, celebrating a victory over an insurrection in 2003. In Punakhah, we visited a fertility temple dedicated to the “Divine Madman”, a guru who sounds like quite the character. All the stories about him involved his…phallus, and all the handicrafts from that village reflect those legends.

108 Chortens

That afternoon we visited the Winter Palace, where the first king was crowned, the first National Assembly took place, the current king had his wedding (he’s #5 in this family line of kings). The fortress is very beautiful, built in the “13 Arts and Crafts style”.

Chris and Deah at the Winter Palace

On day three we drove back to Thimphu, stopping at Buddha Point, a 52 meter high statue of Buddha, gilded in bronze, surrounded by 21 Boddhisattvas. It’s one of the largest statues of Buddha in the world. We also watched an archery match, and visited the post office-where we had stamps made with our own photo of us at the Winter Palace. Later that night we got a view of the Rinpung, beautifully lit up at night, and visited a local bar with our guide and driver, where we tried a Bhutanese rice beer and a wheat beer.

Buddha Dordenma
Bhutan
Using compound bows, these archers aim for targets 140 meters away
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Dried chilies with cheese (Ema Datschi) is the national dish

On our last full day, we set out early to hike to the Taktsang Monastery, or Tiger’s Nest. It was built in 1692, on a mountainside cliff 1200 meters high, by guru Rinpoche. He flew to Bhutan (from Tibet) on the back of a tiger and meditated in a cave high up on the mountain for three years, three months, three weeks, and three days in the 8th century, bringing Buddhism to Bhutan. It was a tough hike, but beautiful views. It is considered the most holy site in Bhutan, the last Vajrayana Buddhist nation in the world.

Tiger’s Nest Monastery

And that pretty much concluded our trip. The next morning we went to the airport, where we boarded our flight to Bangladesh. Overall, the tour of Bhutan was interesting, but odd- sort of a cross between the Tibet tour and the North Korea tour.

Country Costs:

Flight to: $250

Visa: $50

Per day cost: $250 each

Nepal

We spent four weeks in Nepal, visiting several areas. Nepal is a beautiful, hospitable and interesting country- and also trashy, polluted, and maddeningly inefficient. But let’s talk about the good stuff first!

2018 nepal - 48

Chris and I arrived in Kathmandu during the Hindu festival of Dashain. We stayed in Thamel, the five-block tourist zone of the busy city, and I promptly got sick. I spent 12 hours throwing up, then felt much better and didn’t have any problems the rest of the time I was there. So at least I got that out of the way. We also got to meet up with our friend Ray, our most adventurous friend, who we met on the Appalachian Trail in 2014, so that was fun!

An offering for Dashain
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Fun to see friends around the world!

We got our trekking permits and got an eight hour bus to Besisahar. From there we started the Annapurna Circuit trek, a roughly 150 mile hike that goes up a river valley, over a Himalayan pass, and down another river valley, with views of the Annapurna and Dhaulagiri mountains each day. For six days we trekked steadily upwards (although with plenty of maddening downhills too) through small villages, farm fields, mountain paths, and goat trails. We ate meals and stayed in small teahouses, so we didn’t have to carry tents or food. Some people take a guide or porters, but we did not (for a day-by-day blog post of our Annapurna Circuit hike, click here).

Following this river valley all the way up

The architecture, people, and religious customs in this area are more (Buddhist) Tibetan than (Hindu) Nepalese. For centuries, trade between India and Nepal, and China and Tibet, has centered on these passes through the Himalayas. The people greet us with ” Namaste”, and most are vegetarian. The locals along the route are poor by western standards, but feeding and housing tourists, as well as farming, makes these people more well-off than those in other parts of the country.

At the High Pass on the trek

Happily, we had excellent weather, and after six days up the Marsygandi River Valley, an acclimatization day at 3500 meters, and another two days up, we were at the high pass. Painstakingly, with one foot in front of the other, we made it over the high pass at 5400 meters, and started down the other side, along the Kali Gandaki river valley. Going down proved pretty much as hard as going up but without the fear of Acute Mountain Sickness or HAPE/HACE. After three or four days down, I decided I was done hiking and we hopped on a bus (for what was literally the most terrifying bus ride I’ve ever been on) to a pretty lakeside town, Pokhara.

Starting back down the mountains…

We spent a couple of days resting our aching feet in Pokhara, then decided to visit Chitwan National Park. We stayed at the lovely Chitwan Village Resort, and enjoyed various activities such as a canoe ride, a jungle walk, and a Jeep safari. We saw dozens of sub-tropical birds: herons, osprey, storks, and kingfishers, as well as crocodiles, monkeys, deer, rhinos, elephants, and boars. We even encountered a wild rhino foraging in the village, watching as an exasperated farmer chased it out of his farm field.

While we were in Chitwan, the Diwali festival began. Candles everywhere, and colored-sand or colored-rice rangolis in front of everyone’s front door made the area festive. We took a bus back to Kathmandu, and visited the UNESCO Durbar Square (largely destroyed by the 2015 earthquake, and with very few signs of being reconstructed anytime soon), and Swayambhunath Buddhist temple (the monkey temple) and enjoyed walking around the streets in and near Thamel. It’s a pleasant, fairly quiet area with lots of courtyard cafes, hotels of all budget levels, and shops selling trekking gear and Nepalese souvenirs. On our last day in town, we went to visit the Temple of Boudhanath, one of the largest Buddhist stupas in the world.

Swayambhunath Temple
Monkeys greet us as we head up the steps

Unfortunately, Nepal has a serious trash and pollution problem. High on a hill in Kathmandu, one cannot see the other side of the city due to the smog. Nepalese think nothing of dropping trash on the ground when they are done with their candies, chips, or water bottles, even at their holiest sites. This trash accumulates in every stream and on every hillside leading in and out of Kathmandu- I watched as a dump truck full of trash pulled up next to a mountain side, reversed, and then emptied its load of brightly- bagged trash straight down the hillside. Trash is burned in the streets and the villages constantly, giving off an acrid smoke as the various plastics burn. It is no wonder that most Nepalese wear face-masks for their own respiratory protection. It is extremely common to see and hear the person walking or sitting next to you hawk up a huge loogie wherever they are- indoors or out- and spit it on the ground.

Just one of the piles of trash in Kathmandu

So. Nepal. Beautiful country- fabulous trekking- but not the highest on my list to visit. There’s plenty of other places to vacation in Asia that have at least gotten their trash problem under control. I’m glad we came, and I’m glad we’re going. I think Nepal would be a difficult place to work and live in.

Total costs for Nepal:

Flight: $0 (we used airline points to get from DC to here)

Visas: $40 per person for the 30 day visa

Food, lodging, permits, activities, souvenirs: $1580

Days in country: 26

Cost per day: $60 for two people

Have you been to Nepal? What were your impressions?